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Six quirky Edinburgh buildings you (probably) haven't noticed


Edinburgh World Heritage present their pick of six unusual Edinburgh buildings - from a bath house with Mary Queen of Scots connections to the city's smallest listed building. 

Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site is home to over 1,600 listed buildings, and among the grand and spectacular architecture are some more peculiar and quirky structures.

1. Old Observatory House
Old Observatory House on Calton Hill dates to 1776 and was originally intended as an observatory, designed by James Craig who was also responsible for the New Town plan.

The observatory was the idea of an Edinburgh optician called Thomas Short, who had inherited the business of his brother James, a famous telescope maker. However it was never a success, and in 1819 a new observatory was built next door.

From 1802 the militia were allowed to use the grounds as an arsenal. The Edinburgh Magazine of June 1814 wondered“...how long the Proprietors of the Astronomical Insitution may yet be favoured with the chance to have their brains blown out…” The building was then leased out as accommodation right up until the 1980’s, and today provides holiday accommodation for visitors to the city.

2. The old summer house

Tucked away at the back of Moray House in the Canongate is the old garden pavilion, which in the early 1700s was at the centre of the political drama of the Act of Union. The tenant of Moray House at that time was the Earl of Seafield, Lord Chancellor of Scotland, and the man charged with securing the deal with England.

The pavilion at the bottom of his garden was perfect as a central and discreet location for his supporters to meet, without attracting too much attention from those opposed to union. In the 1800s it was converted into a hothouse for growing oranges or vines. Then for a while it was a sewing room, before being moved a short distance and rebuilt against a neighbouring wall in 1910.

3. Queen Mary’s Bath House

At the side of the Palace of Holyroodhouse is a picturesque and unusual building from the time of Mary Queen of Scots – but did she actually bathe there?

It certainly dates from the 1500s and at one time would have attached to the main building, becoming isolated when a range of buildings were demolished in Victorian times to form a new entrance to the palace. The most likely explanation is that it was a pavilion for the North privy gardens within the grounds of the palace. The sort of place where close friends could be entertained with a banquet course, away from the bustle of the main building.

4. Governor’s House   

The Calton Jail was once notorious in Edinburgh, a forbidding castellated fortress perched on the side of Calton Hill looking down on the city.

It was demolished in 1930 to make way for the new Scottish government offices, but the Governor’s House still remains a reminder of its grim past. The house was nearly demolished in 1938, as the new Secretary of State for Scotland John Colville disliked the view of its turrets form his office.

However the new government building was so controversial, the First Commissioner of Works persuaded him to change his mind.

5. An eighteenth century taxi-rank?  

Tucked away in Tweeddale Court, just off the Royal Mile, is an unassuming historic building. It is a rare survival of a sedan chair house, and possibly the smallest listed building in the World Heritage Site. In the 1700s it would have stored the sedan chairs, used to carry the wealthy around the city.

6. A compact and bijou apartment 

The Nelson Monument was begun with a surge of enthusiasm in November 1805, to commemorate Lord Nelson’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar. However the fundraising effort quickly slowed, leaving an un-finished monument and a large debt.

Realising that income was urgently needed, the monument was opened to the public and rooms around the base of the monument were leased to a ‘keeper’. One of the first was a Mrs Kerr, a widow of a petty officer, who ran a small restaurant on the ground floor.

The monument had a live-in keeper until 1868, when the council decided that it should cease to be used as a dwelling, because of a “…want of water and water closets…” However these problems were later solved, and the last keeper left the monument only 15 years ago.

For more on the historic buildings of Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns visit the Edinburgh World Heritage website.

Read our special feature on six Edinburgh dogs to rival Greyfriars Bobby.

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